A TRIBUTE TO GENE RODDENBERRY
by Michelle Erica Green
Christian Höhne Sparborth of Trek Nation asked several critics, staff members and writers to share their thoughts on the tenth anniversary of Gene Roddenberry's death, Thursday, October 24, 2001. Christian pointed out that over the past ten years, we have seen five new television series based on Roddenberry's ideas. I have had the events of September 11, 2001 very much on my mind lately. This was my contribution to the memorial.
It's difficult to come up with anything to say about Gene Roddenberry that doesn't sound trite or overblown, so I'll simply be honest and admit that Star Trek had as much influence on my values and philosophy as my religious upbringing. Though I was born midway through the original series' first season, I'm really a second-generation Trekker - I watched nightly reruns with my father over the course of several years of my childhood, and discovered organized fandom through the books of those who helped shape it. The Great Bird of the Galaxy was already a being of mythic proportions by the time I learned anything about the life and career of Gene Roddenberry. To me he was the man who put a woman on the bridge of the Enterprise, who insisted that beings from radically different backgrounds could live and work together, who never stopped believing that human beings would reach the stars - if not during his lifetime, then during mine.
I don't want to downplay Gene's contributions as an entertainer. Many who worked with him have said he was the one who insisted on establishing strong characters as the basis for convincing science fiction. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are not only three of the most interesting people I "met" in my childhood, they're also role models to this day. Star Trek has always been not just about the strange new worlds, but the people boldly going to them, and the compromises and personal growth that entails. I hear the current producers promise that Enterprise will get back to the spirit of the original series, and I hope they will keep in mind that the spirit of exploration isn't about extraterrestrial conspiracies and scientific technobabble; it's about the joy of discovery and first contact, the pain of having assumptions challenged, the discovery of infinite diversity in infinite combinations rather than the impulse to humanize everything alien. For me, that was what Gene's shows were about.
I remember crying the first time I saw 'City on the Edge of Forever' in elementary school, being very upset about the choice Captain Kirk had been forced to make between the needs of the many and the needs of the one - though Spock hadn't yet articulated that Vulcan phrase about the former outweighing the latter. That episode kept me thinking for weeks about social obligations and personal honor; only much later did I consider the fantastic elements, the hazards of time travel and the conundrums of history. I didn't think of myself as a science fiction fan in those days. And apparently Gene didn't either, not in the sense of wanting to make a show with spectacular explosions and makeup so stunning you forgot to pay attention to what the characters were saying. He always knew the shows were about people and ideas, a belief in our ability to evolve past current prejudices, a positive vision of the future.
Though I'm presuming to call him Gene, I knew Roddenberry only through his work. For the most part I've avoided biographies of him and his associates that attempt to balance his personal legend against his flaws as a human being. They just aren't as interesting as his legacy. I am aware that Star Trek owes a great debt to Gene L. Coon, Robert Justman and dozens of other men and women responsible for its production and evolution since, from Rick Berman to Robert Hewitt Wolfe - particularly Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who has always downplayed her role even as she has worked devotedly since his death to bring Gene's ideas to the screen.
No matter what any disgruntled actor may say about him, no matter what revisionist form of Star Trek winds up on our screens, I will always remember the man who said, 'The funny thing is that everything is science fiction at one time or another,' who believed the best of humanity and its possibilities. In this current season of grief and turmoil, Gene Roddenberry is greatly missed.